You have not received a letter from me in awhile. It’s not that there is nothing going on—that is certainly not the case. But I have resolved to be as productive and positive as possible with the prospect of the new council on the horizon. And to that end, I am endeavoring to end battles that no longer need to be fought. Our society is based on opposing opinions that are hashed out in full view for all. And on Election Day, our neighbors render their opinions in the form of a ballot. We are all neighbors. We see each other at parties, at the grocery store and post office, at the Fitness Center. Families have disagreements, as do congregations and small city governments. But in the end, we all need to live together.
But that is not to say that disagreement is bad. In my opinion, bad is not speaking up. Bad is letting things go unchallenged. When you take the job as council person, your neighbors expect you to know what is going on. So to that end, I ask a lot of questions. I read every document. I even request documents that are alluded to, but not provided to the council. I have been told this is second guessing staff at city hall, and even that my requests for information is making extra, undue work for that staff. But that isn’t my goal or purpose. If people can stream out of their homes on icy, cold February mornings to vote, I feel those votes should matter. Remember, we are a republic, not a democracy—that means people vote for the people who vote. Not everyone has the time or ability to read through contracts and laws, proposals and spreadsheets.
Your council people are just citizens. We are not instant experts, so we have to be quick learners. I have heard the strategy that every new council person should “keep their head down for the first year”. Nope—not my head. We have two-year terms, so if the first year is just learning, that’s quite an inefficient outlook. Or think of it this way. You fall and break your hip and the ambulance comes. Two EMTs come to attend to you, but one just stands off to the side. To explain, the other one says, “Oh don’t worry, she started nine months ago, she’s just learning this year so she won’t actually do anything unless you break your hip again next year.” I have learned many things in this first year, and actively participating is how to learn best and fastest.
Also I would like to point out that local government is a combination of volunteers and professional staff. The staff is professional—they get paid. But many of them in key positions had never done their job before arriving in Kewaunee. Our last administrator had never been a City Administrator before and had never lived in Kewaunee. He learned on the job. Others were in the same situation and mistakes were made—and we all learn and move forward.
And then there is a concept of institutional knowledge. That is the concept that someone who has been doing a job for awhile knows a lot of stuff that is not in the training manual. We could have used a little institutional knowledge this year. No one knew who owned lakefront property south of the beach. The city gave out misinformation, not knowing what land they owned and didn’t own. Another example: Where are the Historic District Banners that the city is supposed to put up every year? Nobody knows. The reality is that the city relies on the institutional memory that is stored in the heads of our more senior staff and volunteers. This is a valuable commodity for our city.
And what I’m really writing about today is volunteers. About half of our city government is volunteers. This includes all the committees and countless organizations, the fire department, the mayor and council to name a few. Many of the people running the elections are volunteers. Some get paid a little bit. But my $145 a month, or the money the mayor and firemen get is nominal when considering the time and effort involved. But volunteers are local—and volunteers care. And volunteers are likely to be around next year and the year after that.
And let’s face it, our staff requires outside consults all the time. Our public works department relies on outside contractors and engineers. Our treasurer relies on auditors and paid financial consultants. Our attorney uses outside attorneys for different legal matters. Even our past administrator has paid consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars that many may have assumed was work done at City Hall.
There is one final example I would like you all to think about. This past month, our lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places—a feat that took years to accomplish. The all-volunteer committee researched, wrote grants, pushed, harangued, cajoled and worked for years. They raised funds. They raised awareness. They fought for our city. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my first year in city council, is that nobody cares about Kewaunee as much as the people who live in Kewaunee. So let’s use volunteers where we can and local staff where we have to.
Thanks for listening,